Beyond prompts: How to teach writing for middle school student success

Writing is tough. So is middle school. What are the best ways to reach students at this unique moment with this essential skill?

By Amplify Staff | March 4, 2024

image of student engaging in writing prompts for middle school

Writing is hard. Natalie Wexler, who co-wrote The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades, has described it as “the hardest thing we ask students to do.”

And writing is also hard to teach—perhaps especially to middle schoolers.

Writing education experts such as Steve Graham, Ph.D., say that, as important as writing is, it often gets less attention due to competing educational demands, like the need to teach subjects connected to high-stakes testing, the pressure to teach to a given test, and the siloing of writing as an independent skill untethered to content.

But writing is essential—not just as a means of expressing knowledge, but also as a means of building it. That’s why, when it comes to middle-school writing instruction, we need to go beyond just writing prompts. So how can teachers provide the strongest possible writing instruction for middle-school students? Keep reading.

Student writing: Why it matters

Learning to write makes you a better writer, but it also makes you a better reader—and a better learner.

In a meta-analysis of more than 100 studies, Steve Graham and Michael Hebert, Ph.D., found that writing about text improves comprehension and learning even more than reading alone, reading and rereading, or reading and discussing.

“Combining reading and writing is part of the Science of Reading,” writes literacy educator Tim Shanahan, Ph.D. “If you want better reading scores, the Science of Reading says do not neglect writing, nor dispatch it to someplace else in the curriculum. When you feel especially pressured to improve reading achievement, that is the time to embrace more tightly the combination of reading and writing.”

Shanahan also notes that readers who write and writers who read are best equipped to observe what authors do to convey meaning and what readers need in order to understand writing.

Current ELA standards recognize the interplay between reading and writing by articulating these goals: using writing to improve learning from text and using the reading of multiple texts to improve the writing of syntheses or reports.

Writing activities for middle school

Even with challenges and constraints, educators can find ways to engage students and transform their writing. When planning writing activities with your middle-school students, it’s important to keep them captivated, incorporate writing instruction throughout your lessons, and differentiate to meet the needs of all of your students. Here are some principles that will help:

  • Detach writing from getting it “right.” Seymour Papert theorized that students become better thinkers when they’re not attached to one outcome—not afraid to be “wrong.” Of course, sometimes there is a correct answer, but it’s the process of seeking it that counts. Offer writing assignments that encourage—and reward—risk-taking and creativity.
  • Integrate writing everywhere. Help students build both knowledge and writing skills by including writing exercises across subjects, including science.
  • Scaffold with sentence frames and modified prompts. Middle-school students often know what they want to say, but not how to say it, especially if they are multilingual learners. Sentence frames and modified prompts—such as “Tom convinces his friends to whitewash the fence by saying…”—can help with that. They reduce linguistic barriers, enabling students to produce writing and speech more complex than what they could have done on their own—and giving you a sense of their level of understanding.

Writing can be a powerful tool to help students deepen their comprehension of written text, expand their knowledge, and develop as communicators. Learn more about the best strategies and activities to use in your classroom. These will put you on the best path for helping your students thrive as writers, readers, communicators, and lifelong learners.


ELA Literacy instruction Reading curriculum Science of Reading curriculum

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